Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Wounded Christ

(Note: This post first appeared in my church's newsletter.)

As we approach another Easter, there is one detail in the story of the resurrection that always fascinates me and yet, I’ve never read anything about it in commentaries or heard a sermon about it. It’s a detail that doesn’t always show up in the readings for church until the week after Easter, when we read about Thomas the Confessor (instead of the Doubter, but that’s for another column).

The detail that always fascinates me is that Jesus is still wounded.

I’d think that the God that can restart Jesus’ heart and lungs after two days could stitch up the holes in his hands, feet, and side. After all, throughout the Gospels, God’s power cures leprosy, heals blindness, and makes legs walk again. So why does Jesus still carry wounds?

In the Gospel accounts, the wounds function partly as identification. Jesus greets the bewildered disciples and says, “Put your hands in my side and touch my hands.” (John 20:20, for example) But wouldn’t scars have worked just as well? (Note he says “IN my side,” not “here’s the scar.”) And surely they would have recognized him without that, right?

I’m not sure why the power of God would have chosen to leave Jesus wounded, but I’ve come to develop my own meaning for them. As I read the story now, I reflect on the way in which even after resurrection and new life, we carry scars and wounds. Even though God gives us new life in Christ, being baptized or saved or redeemed or resurrected (or whatever word you prefer) doesn’t make us perfect. Though God imbues us with holiness, we still carry reminders of frailty. 

And that holds true for all of the resurrection moments in our lives, all of the second chances and new beginnings that we experience. Whenever we greet a new start, we carry our old wounds with us. It’s an image for which I’m grateful because it reminds me that I’m human, simultaneously sinner and saint, as Martin Luther would put it, and those scars connect me with others in their lives. As Train sang in their song “Bruises,” “These bruises make for better conversation… You’re not alone in how you’ve been. Everybody loses; we’ve all got bruises.” Even Jesus.

“Yes and I will run the distance, if you’ll please, please excuse my crutch.” -Vigilantes of Love, “Resplendent”

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Problem With Beauty

It is THE question. Or certainly one of the big ones. It's the question I may hear more often than any other. It's the one I hear from Christians, other religious people and non-religious people alike. It's the one that gets asked with the most sincerity in the I-really-need-an-answer-that-makes-sense-to-this-but-I've-always-been-afraid-to-actually-ask kind of way. And it's the question I personally wrestle with all the time.

The question itself takes many forms:

  • "Why does bad stuff happen to good people?" 
  • "If there is a god, why is there pain in the world?" 
  • "If God created the world, why is there evil in it?

Theologians like to use the fancy word "theodicy"to describe the question, but many people just describe it as "the problem of pain" or "the problem of evil." I've sometimes seen people use the question itself as proof of God's lack of existence, as if there can be no answer to the question and therefore the debate is over. I do have answers to the question (I think it's too complicated and important for just one answer), but instead of trying to settle the question in this blog posting, I prefer to ask a different question: "How do we deal with the problem of beauty?"

You see, to a certain extent, pain can be understood from a purely rational viewpoint. Pain has an evolutionary purpose; it tells our brains: "Something is wrong. Fix it!" Whether it's physical or emotional, pain can preserve and protect us by serving as a warning system. While we can wax philosophical about the causes of pain and how we deal with pain, the fact of pain makes sense.

But what about beauty? I've never met anyone who watches the sun set over the ocean in hues of pink and orange and doesn't think that it is beautiful. And most people agree that Van Gogh's "Starry Night" or Monet's water lilies are beautiful. But why? Where does our sense of beauty come from? If the universe is purely random and uncaring, why do we have a sense of beauty? What evolutionary purpose does it serve?

For that matter, how do we make sense of joy? Pleasure? Humor? Love? We take them for granted as part of human experience, but they are just as senseless as pain and suffering. To be clear, I'm not an evolution denier (before following a call to be a pastor, my plan was to be a biologist). But if the existence of pain and grief is somehow proof that God doesn't exist, then my counterpoint is that beauty, joy, and laughter are just as legitimately arguments for God.

As long as there is life, there will likely be debates about the existence of both evil/pain and God -- and there should be -- but for my money, there is just as much mystery to be found in the problem of beauty, the trouble with humor, and the senselessness of joy. It is wrestling with those mysteries that gives my life purpose.

“The space between the tears we cry is the laughter that keeps us coming back for more.” -Dave Matthews Band, "The Space Between"